OHSU study shows some relief for opioid epidemic

The battle against opioid addiction in Oregon continues with newfound ambition, according to a study published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine Wednesday, April 25. Leading healthcare professionals at Oregon Health and Science University discussed the effects of addiction on patients and care providers in an intensive study focused on an addiction medicine service called Improving Addiction Care Team, also known as Project IMPACT.

“I know what it’s like to see the trauma and the wreckage in your life from using drugs, but you can’t stop using; you want to stop using,” said O’Nesha Cochran, a certified peer recovery mentor and partner of Project IMPACT at OHSU. “Every day you wake up. You say ‘[I’m going to] stop. Last night was hectic; I don’t want to relive that experience,’ but then you use again and again.”

Project IMPACT aims to aid in decriminalizing addiction and work toward treating it as a disease, not a choice. These goals are echoed in the study’s title “We’ve Learned It’s a Medical Illness, Not a Moral Choice.”

The epidemic of opioid use and addiction in the United States has been an ongoing crisis for the past two decades. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the situation began in the late 1990s when pharmaceutical companies communicated to the medical research community that the risk of addiction to opioid-based pain medications was minimal.

In that 2015 alone, an estimated 2 million U.S. residents suffered from opioid-related substance use disorders, and more than 33,000 deaths were reported at the hands of opioid overdose, according to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Oregon has not been exempt from the opioid crisis. According to the Oregon Health Authority, three Oregonians die every week from prescription opioid overdose on average. Traditional opioid addiction treatment has, so far, not been enough. Before Project IMPACT, said Dr. Honora Englander, associate professor of medicine at OHSU and the study’s leading author, medical professionals reported feeling the care they provided felt careless and risky.

According to an article posted on OHSU’s website in 2016, when medical professionals addressed only the symptoms of substance use rather than the root causes, patients often returned to the hospital multiple times for substance use-related injuries such as infections or overdoses.

Project IMPACT focuses on a new outlook, one that prioritizes connection with and empathy for people with addictions, employing people from the community who have experienced the reality of opioid addiction and using medicinal-based treatment that focuses on mitigating the effects of opioid withdrawal symptoms.

Discussing the project’s peer-based approach to treatment, Englander said, “By having peers who have lived with addiction and [are] in recovery, not only do they provide a tremendous amount of empathy and compassion and support for people, but they can really have a conversation on a different level and help people see hope.”

The study’s authors, as well as a number of medical professionals and patients working with Project IMPACT have declared the program a success. According to one participant quoted in the study, the addiction care team “[legitimizes] the fact that [addiction] is an actual disease that we need to treat—and a failure to treat it is a failure to be a good doctor.”